Besides Vietnam, you have conducted philanthropic work in a number of countries — mainly French-speaking Africa. But Vietnam seems to have been the main focus of your efforts. Can you explain why? And why is medical philanthropy such an important part of your life?
Philanthropy cannot be done alone. Vietnam was and is aware of what it needs. It has been deeply involved in the project with me, from the beginning and up to now. This is the key.
I’m a doctor and a doctor’s job is to treat patients. Sometimes you cannot treat them either because of a lack of available treatment or because of a lack of funds. For me, it is physically and morally intolerable to abandon a patient for those reasons. This is what has given me the motivation to develop projects like the Heart Institute in Vietnam.
In 1992, together with Professor Duong Quang Trung, you founded the Heart Institute in Ho Chi Minh City. Since then over 20,000 Vietnamese — mainly children, of whom 30 percent are from poor backgrounds — have been given life-saving surgery. How difficult was it to set up the institute and how difficult is it to maintain?
In early 1992, the main difficulty was the very credibility of our project. There was no heart surgery in Vietnam and the building of the Heart Institute was brand new. The general economy of this country was also not what it is now. Objectively it was hard to believe that this highly technological life-saving heart surgery could be offered to any sick child, whatever their economic resources. It took us some time to overcome this difficulty and demonstrate that the Heart Institute actually was a philanthropic contribution to the improvement of the health system in Vietnam.
I am very proud that we succeeded in demonstrating the long-lasting capacity of an autonomous hospital that is financially self-supporting, and that we have managed to treat patients, educate doctors and share our knowhow. Today, around 12 public hospitals perform cardiac surgery and interventional cardiology in Vietnam. Decentralising responsibility for this was the inspiration of the Ministry of Health.
Why is it so important to you to help people who are impoverished or from non-affluent backgrounds? How do you feel every time a child’s life is saved?
Not an easy question! As a French-born cardiac surgeon, I bear two things at my fingertips — the technical ability to perform life-saving gestures and at the bottom of my heart, a real comfort with the idea that talent is there to be shared. My country does not always feel totally comfortable with globalisation, but in today’s world, I am happy that France, together with other nations, is trying to reconcile its own national needs with generosity towards other countries.
The International Medical Centre (CMI) was set up at the same time as the institute. How vital is the work of CMI to people living in Ho Chi Minh City? How does it work together with the Foundation Alain Carpentier?
The International Medical Centre is hugely important. First, from a central location in Ho Chi Minh City it offers a large span of medical services to everyone who feels comfortable with international standards of general medical practice, family practice or specialised services. And second, it generates revenue that, once all costs are covered, is totally dedicated to funding operations for children from poor financial backgrounds. It exemplifies what today is termed a social enterprise — a centre that is professionally run but whose exclusive purpose is to benefit its patients and the patients of the Heart Institute. Two bodies, one programme.
You have been called the father of modern mitral valve repair. Could you describe what this means?
Well this means that I’ve been curious, wanted to investigate. The starting point is the patient, in situations where you simply don’t have the medicines or tools to treat a specific disease. To overcome this you have to conduct research and make innovations, otherwise you have to abandon the patient. Innovation is characterised by curiosity.
Throughout your career, you have received a number of awards for your work in the field of cardiovascular surgery. How does it feel each time you receive an award? Which one is most important for you?
Throughout my career I have encountered difficulties daily, and each time, solutions have emerged. This is the life of a researcher. If you do not face problems and try to overcome them, you will never do anything with your life. Receiving an award is like encouragement, it’s a boost to keep doing what you do. It means you have followed the right path and have followed it well.
On Nov. 30, CMI will hold its annual gala to raise money for children needing heart surgery. What are your hopes for the event? Will you be attending?
I am most thankful for every guest who will attend this event. What we need is support. Yes, we do need money to fund the surgery of impoverished children — the contribution of the International Medical Centre has to be complemented. The contribution of the gala last year was more than US$50,000 (VND1.05 billion). That was great but we want to raise more. And beyond money, we also need to increase general knowledge and awareness of our programmes, and build trust within the community.